(An alternate version of this story was recently published in the Tampa Bay Times)
What’s in a band name?
Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour 55th Anniversary Celebration is the rather unwieldy official name for the group featuring acclaimed jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and celebrated bass virtuoso Christian McBride.
It’s not exactly original, as two previous bands have toured under that name. And the billing serves the blatantly commercial purpose of promoting the brand of the northern California festival, widely regarded as one of the country’s oldest, biggest and best gatherings of its kind.
But after playing more than 25 shows on a 40-city tour which began in January and continues around the country through the end of April, the six top-shelf jazz musicians feel like a real band, McBride said recently from New York.
There, Bridgewater, McBride, saxophonist Chris Potter, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, pianist Benny Green and drummer Lewis Nash played a dozen sets over six nights at the Blue Note, the famed Manhattan jazz club.
New York Times reviewer Ben Ratliff, covering the second set of the residency’s first evening, called the group “accurate and articulate and loose and serious,” a description also applicable to the band’s performance of Horace Silver’s “Filthy McNasty,” available on YouTube.
Tim Jackson, artistic director of the Monterey festival, asked McBride, the tour’s musical director, to “try to capture the feel of the festival, which is kind of hard to do because musicians make the festival,” he said by telephone. “After digging further into his think tank, he (Jackson) says, ‘There are a few artists who’ve always been associated with Monterey more than most – Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Gerald Wilson, Charles Lloyd. Give us a few songs by those grand masters who have been closely associated with Monterey, but do your own music as well.’ ”
Consequently, the group draws from music that might variously be classified as straight-ahead jazz, hard bop, soul jazz, and ballads, on original compositions as well as pieces including Brubeck’s “Mr. Broadway,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tanga,” and Bobby Hutcherson’s “Highway One.”
“We’re trying to explore all of those colors and timbres,” McBride said.
For the Monterey Jazz Festival tour, Bridgewater sings “God Bless the Child,” “Don’t Explain” and “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” and other numbers associated with Billie Holiday. Holiday, honored by Bridgewater on her Grammy-winning 2010 CD “Eleanora Fagan,” sang at the debut Monterey Jazz Festival, held at an outdoor horse-show arena in 1958.
“Even beyond the repertoire, with standards and originals, and a gamut of styles, we wanted it really well rehearsed and well oiled so we’re not just a jam band,” McBride said. “We wanted to make sure this band had a look and a concept and a sound. I’ve worked very hard on really approaching it as if we’re a real band. And at this point, we are.”
The sextet’s members, all of whom have won or placed high in various jazz magazines’ critics polls, collectively have racked up nearly 35 performances at the Monterey fest.
McBride, a Grammy winner for 2011’s “The Good Feeling,” his first big band recording as a leader, has wowed audiences with his touring trio, with pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. Their first CD together is due this August.
(I reviewed the trio’s performance last November at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, for Jazz Times)
Green, who emerged in the ‘80s through work with drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and singer Betty Carter, later played with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and bassist Ray Brown (McBride’s mentor and primary influence). His latest CD, “Magic Beans,” was released in February on Sunnyside.
McBride, who estimates that he has played on nearly 300 jazz recordings, has worked with drummer Nash on about 60 of those releases, and both have collaborated with pianist Green. So the three come by their synchronicity naturally.
“It’s nice to go onstage with a group of musicians who you know so well that you can pretty much do anything and know it’s going to be okay,” McBride said. “That kind of trust and comfort level is something you can only achieve over the course of time.”
The rhythm section, McBride said, also has developed an easy rapport with the horn players. Potter, a much-lauded saxophonist who has released about 20 albums as a leader or co-leader, including new disc “The Sirens” on ECM, has appeared on more than 100 recordings as a sideman, and recently toured with guitarist Pat Metheny’s Unity Band. Fast-rising trumpeter Akinmusire, at 30 the crew’s rookie player, has won major jazz competitions and earned critical kudos for 2011’s “When the Heart Emerges Glistening,” released on Blue Note.
“He’s keeping the band interesting because he has these fresh new ideas,” McBride, 40, said about Akinmusire. “He’s coming from a generation that didn’t necessarily feed themselves on straight-ahead and playing standards, but he can do that. He brings a fresh way of thinking. We’re really enjoying getting to know Ambrose and getting to hear him play.
“He expressed that this was his first time getting to go on the road with some musicians who are significantly beyond his years – I don’t want to say old cats,” McBride, said, laughing, “but we’re certainly older than him.
The band, too, has jelled with Bridgewater, McBride said.
Bridgewater, 62, the elder stateswoman of the group, has gained a worldwide following via numerous recordings and concert appearances, and through her work as host of National Public Radio’s “JazzSet” program. In addition to the Grammy for her Holiday tribute, she won two for 1997’s “Dear Ella,” a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. And she landed a Tony for “The Wiz.” Bridgewater has had a long and storied career, beginning with an early ‘70s stint with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.
“Dee Dee has seen it all, done it all, and worked with everyone,” McBride said. “She knows exactly what she’s doing. There’s nothing you can get by her or nothing she doesn’t want to try. She approaches her art the same way any instrumentalist would. She so sure footed – she sings with such assuredness. We just love her fearlessness.
“We’ve been going since January 10, so it’s safe to say we’re lived-in. It’s come together well as a unit, not just an all-star jam band. We’ve seen enough of those over the years.”